A few weeks ago I wrote about the tendency of writers to compare the war in Iraq to the Athenian adventure in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War. For the next few weeks I waited for someone in the press to bring up the topic so that I wouldn’t look like a liar. I didn’t have to wait very long.
In the past few weeks Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has mentioned the ancient invention twice. The first time was on January 23, 2007, when he wrote -
“Forget the Vietnam analogy that critics of the Iraq war usually toss out. A more trenchant analysis of Iraq-style adventures appears in the histories of Thucydides, written 2,400 years ago.
Great Athenian diplomats of the day, like Nicias, warned against military involvement in Sicily, calling it ''a war that does not concern us,'' according to Thucydides. But smooth-talking neocons of the day, like the brilliant Alcibiades, said in effect that the Sicilians would welcome the Athenians with flowers. He promised that they would be treated not as occupiers but as liberators.
''We shall have many barbarians join us,'' Alcibiades declared, and he argued that the enemy would be easily defeated ''rabble.'' ''Never were the Peloponnesians more hopeless against us,'' he told the crowds.
So the Athenians rallied around the flag and dispatched a huge force. But as Thucydides notes, they had suffered a grievous intelligence failure: they did not get the support they had counted on, and the enemy was far larger and more organized than they had anticipated. The war went badly, and eventually Athens was forced to confront two options: withdraw or escalate.
The Athenians, deciding that defeat was not an option, went with the ''surge.'' They dispatched an additional 70-odd ships and 5,000 troops.
The result was a catastrophic defeat. Thousands of Athenians were killed far from home, and others were sold into slavery. The Athenian navy was destroyed, and the double-or-nothing gambit meant that other nonaligned states sided with the Athenians' enemy, Sparta.
Within a few years, Athenian democracy had collapsed, and Athens, the great city-state of the ancient world, had been conquered by Sparta.”
Kristof followed up on January 6, 2007 in a related article that “Thucydides’ account of the failed “surge” in the Sicilian expedition 2,400 years ago is newly relevant “
So, I got my proof twofold. First, that the Peloponnesian War is on the mind of commentators about the Iraq War, but also, that no one really explains what they mean when they compare the two wars. Kristof has gone further than most, giving at least some information about it. Unfortunately, some of it is wrongor at least incomplete. Actually I like Kristof’s articles for the most part. Just about everyone is either too far left or too far right for me. He is too far left. But even very successful columnists like Kristof seem to rarely research the historical analogies they make.
So, just to refresh your memory, the Persians had been defeated in their attempt to conquer Greek thanks to the superior army of the Spartans and the unparalleled Navy of the Athenians. Before that war was even won, Sparta retreated within itself and Athens greatly expanded. Though reasons for the Peloponnesian War are not certain, many authors believe it was due to Sparta’s fear that Athens would grow to powerful. Sparta invaded, but could not penetrate Athen's famous “Long Walls”. They traded victories back and forth until several hundred Spartan’s were trapped on an island and Sparta surrendered rather than sacrifice the soldiers. During the truce that followed, Athens invaded Sicily. Here is that story, and how it compares to the modern war. To me, the most interesting aspect is not what happened to Athens, but our one glimpse of a half-Spartan general named Gylippus, a remarkable soldier, who rose from nothing to become an astonishing success.
Athens had been asked to intercede in a war between Greek colonies on the island of Sicily. The first time Athens help was sought they tried to raise some support from other Greek colonies to help their ally fight on Syracuse, the big power on the Island. They were not successful. But about a decade later, around 415 B.C. (dates and even years are not always certain when you go back this far) Athens was once again approached. Taking a payment for the first month’s expenses they began to debate it among themselves.
In early Spring 415 the Athenians selected three generals to lead an expedition of 60 ships. One of the generals, Alcibiades, was a young general loved by many and possibly hated or distrusted by as many more. He actively sought out the command and believed in it, much as Kristof writes in his article. Nicias, an older and highly respected general, believed it was a mistake to invade, again, just as Kristof says. He could not, however, safely avoid being part of it. A third general, Lamachus, was probably meant to balance the other two.
But a few days after the Athenian democratic assembly voted to go forward with the invasion, Nicias desperately tried to get them to reverse itself. Mostly, he was afraid they wouldn’t win and that a united Sicily would team up with Sparta in a new war against Athens. He also attacked Alcibiades for his lack of piousness, which was always a good tactic back then.
However, Alcibiades was not famous for nothing. He easily deflected the fears raised by Nicias and convinced the assembly there was nothing to lose in risking a mere 60 ships, given the condition of the Greek colonies on Sicily. He also applied to the Athenians sense of pride, pointing out how they were an active nation, and suggested that if they became passive, they would die. He piled it on – they had given their oath to help the smaller colonies – Sparta was in a weak condition – it was more likely that Syracuse would join would Sparta if they did not attack them, and so on. Moreover, if they won, Athens would probably control all Greece. That had to sound good.
In fact, the great ancient historian of the war, Thucydides, who was also a general in the war, believed that protecting the smaller colonies was merely a pretext for the real reason -- Athens taking over the entire Island of Sicily. Given Alcibiades argument, at least some of them believed it. We are not about to find out the truth any time soon.
Because Nicias fought so hard to convince the Athenians that they would face formidable opponents and problems, he was given carte blanche to ask for whatever he need. They ended up with, counting Athens and their allies, about 135 triremes (their ships), about 5000 hoplites (the guys with all the armor and pikes) and another 5000 light infantry (in another words, the poor guys without all the armor). Thirty cargo ships were also sent for food, tools, etc. Despite stating strong concerns about the Sicilian cavalry, Nicias did not require one, and they had only about 30 horses and riders with them. Big mistake.
Just before they left, the city was hit with a huge religious scandal that looked deliberately made to stop the invasion. It ended up with Alcibiades leaving with the knowledge that he would have to return to face these charges. As soon as they left, the religious madness resumed and Alcibiades was sent for to be tried at once. I tell you all this just in case you think its only now that people act like idiots about religion. To the contrary, at least in this country at this time, religious differences are handled more civilly and safely than at almost any other time in history.
The invasion started poorly. Allies wouldn’t help. The generals disagreed whether to attack immediately and surprise the Syracusans (Lamachus), or wait until they had local allies to help (Alcibiades), or just to make a show of power and go home (Nicias). In the meantime, the ship that was sent to get Alcibiades and his friends for return to Athens for trial arrived. Alcibiades found out they were coming and made a beeline for Sparta. He was tried in absentia in Athens, and, of course, found guilty. Anyone who came across him was directed to kill him (sounds like a fatwa). Back in Sicily, the Navy sat in their ships and waited.
The two sides jostled for advantage and Athens won the opening battle, at least, technically. But after that, Nicias failed to follow up. He sent home for money (not his fault; the expected money from local allies did not come) and calvary.
The Syracusans were not wasting time. They began training their citizens to fight and, although a democracy themselves, like Athens, gave special powers to their generals to make decisions on their own. They also sent to Sparta, and another powerful Athens-hating city, Corinth, who founded the colony, for help. In the meantime, Alcibiades arrived in Sparta, and tried to convince them that Athens intended to take over all Greece and more (which was, after all, his idea), and tried to convince them to attack Athens in Sicily and in Athens.
The Spartans did no such thing. They did do something, however, which is somewhat unique. They sent one Spartan, or actually, one half Spartan, which made a big difference to them. In fact this half Spartan’s father had been disgraced. In their minds, this general couldn't be much. His name was Gylippus. With him he took only two Corinthian ships and two more from the Peloponnesian peninsular. Some scouting operations were bigger.
In the Spring of 414 B.C., it still did not look so bad for the Athenians. They had control of the sea outside Syracuse, were positioned to turn back any substantial Spartan aid, and soon, when their cavalry arrived, were able to set up a fort to help control the plateau above Syracuse. They then took over the counter-wall the Syracusans were building and cut off the pipes supplying water to the walled city. But Syracuse fought back. While Athens managed to destroy another wall set up by Syracuse, the Syracusan cavalry managed to put a dent in the Athenian phalanx and even killed General Lamachus. That left only Nicias, who was now not only reluctant to be there at all, but very sick.
Despite that rally, without water, it looked like the Syracusans would have to give up. That’s when Gylippus arrived with his small entourage. Quickly he managed to drum up allies which were rallying to Syracuse’s cause. In no time, he had raised a few thousand soldiers and a couple of hundred units of calvary. In the meantime, another Corinthian general managed to get through to Syracuse and convinced the Syracusans not to surrender, but to wait for Gylippus.
Gylippus was all the Syracusans could ask for. He inspired them to fight as well as Winston Churchill would later inspire the British. When he first arrived, the Athenians had almost completed the wall that would have allowed them to totally blockade the city. Nevertheless, he arrogantly told the Athenians they could have a truce if they left within a few days. Sounds like Churchill. From then on he began to make the Athenians sorry they didn’t accept. When he lost a major battle due to a mistake, he took responsibility right away, increasing his good reputation. With a few important tactical victories he completely destroyed the Athenians attempt to surround the city.
In fact, Nicias, who had never lost before, was now desperately trying to find a way to escape. However, he realized that to do so, it might result in his exile or other punishment at the hands of the Athenians, who had little patience with unsuccessful generals. In fact, Thucydides was himself exiled after an important loss during the larger war. That was a good thing for posterity, as if he had died instead, we would have lost our major source of information about the war, and the beginnings of serious history would have been delayed.
Nicias wrote home. While avoiding blaming himself, he said that circumstances required Athens either giving him permission to withdraw or sending another force of the same size. To his surprise, that’s what Athens did. They sent some more generals, including, in my humble opinion, their best fighter, Demosthenes, and many more forces.
But Athens wasn’t the only one to escalate. The war with Sparta had now resumed with Athenian raids near Sparta at the behest of an ally. Now Sparta and Corinth poured men, soldiers and ships into the battle of Sicily. Moreover, ally after ally came forward with every Gylippus victory.
The Athenians were still a dominating force at sea. Nevertheless, the Syracusans, with Corinthian aid came up with novel ways to defeat them. That was unheard of at the time. They reinforced their boats for collisions, lined their triremes with javelin throwers, used smaller more elusive boats with javelin throwers, and even dropped dolphin shaped weights from cranes onto the enemy ships. They also threw rocks, which were easier to aim in rough waters. When all appeared lost, the second Athenian fleet arrived with Demosthenes. As Nicias requested, it was nearly as large as the first fleet.
Demosthenes went to work right away with a sneak attack that seemed to work. But somehow, the Athenians wound up confused in the darkness. Strangely, they became frightened by the singing of some of the opposing troops and then by the counter songs of some of their own allies. Routed in their panic, many Athenians were chased off cliffs. Many of those who did not were hunted down and killed.
Eventually, the Athenian generals determined to flee to the open sea, where the Athenian navy would again have an advantage. Ironically, Nicias was now the most reluctant to leave, partially because he was afraid that the Syracusans would learn of the tactic and block them. He also admitted that if they left he feared being put to death in Athens for his failure.
In two great battles in the Syracuse harbor, the former defenders, but now the hunters of the Athenians destroyed the mighty and still larger fleet in battle. The last battle was fought in view of the cheering Syracusan citizens lining the harbor walls. The Athenians tried to escape in a breach down the middle but were set upon. A general melee ensued. The Athenians were defeated and fled to shore. Led by Nicias and Demosthenes, the soldiers and sailors tried to cut across the country and were cut down or taken prisoner. The two generals were caught and soon put to death. End of the Sicilian adventure.
I leave the rest of the war to your review of my earlier article, or the excellent books on the subject, my favorite of which is Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War. More recent, and more of a best seller, is Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other. Thucydides himself did not live to complete the story although it is still the major source for scholars. Believe it or not, Thucydides own account can be found in book stores.
So, can we compare this unfortunate invasion by the powerful Athenians with our current predicament in Iraq? In some ways, there are obvious comparisons. In each of these ways the U.S. resembles Athens in the ancient war.
-An overwhelmingly powerful force confronts a less powerful force in their distant homeland.
-The less powerful forces comes up with creative ways to battle and stymie the superior force.
-The wars were deemed great wastes of precious lives and blood. The more powerful forces were not fully supported by its allies.
-Both wars were geographically limited (Iraq and Sicily) but were seen as a part of a larger war (the War on Terror and the Peloponnesian war).
-Both defenders were given help by a small group of related outsiders who are also at war with the aggressor (Al Quaeda and the Spartans).
But in other ways, the two wars are nothing alike:
-In Iraq, the presently constituted government still wants the United States’ forces to stay. There was no central government in Sicily.
-Our enemies in Iraq are not united as were Athens’ enemies. In fact they are most often busy trying to kill each other.
-There is little chance that the U.S. forces will be decimated, however much the casualty list grows, as opposed to the Athenian forces, which were destroyed).
-This is not a war between two democracies (both Athens and Syracuse were democratic).
-The Iraq War is not between groups within one culture, as was the Greek war.
-Athens would have gladly destroyed all of Syracuse if it could. We are trying, however unsuccessfully, to rebuild Iraq.
Kristof’s article, which I started out with, is, unlike this blog, a brief opinion piece, so I don’t want to be that hard on him. But it appears he doesn’t realize that the Sicilian Greeks were not Peloponnesians (as the Spartans were), as his article implies. He seems to have no clue as to the role Sparta played unless they are his “non-aligned” people who supported Syracuse (in which, case he is wrong – they were aligned against Athens, even if temporarily at peace with them). The Syracusans were not really “larger and far more organized” than the Athenians had counted on, as Kristof says. In fact, Athens had nearly defeated them when Spartan and Corinthian aid arrived.
Nor is he correct that Athenian democracy soon collapsed. They were defeated ten years later after many more victories, and tyranny was briefly forced upon them when they lost. In fact, as I have said in the last article, it is Sparta which soon faded after their victory, and Athens, once again a democracy, which prospered. And Alcibiades was not an ancient version of a neocon, as Kristof also suggests. Neocons are, if nothing else, idealistic, whether you agree with them or not. Alcibiades was the quintessential opportunist.
Kristof is right that the Athenians’ options became retreat or escalate at one point, but I do not see how nearly doubling the force, as Athens did, can be taken as a “surge” (the escalation in Iraq is adding only roughly 15% of troops). In fact, despite what looks like only a vague knowledge of the Peloponnesian War, Kristof may be right on the main point. As Donald Kagan, who has been writing on the war since at least the 1960s, if not earlier, wrote sometime prior to the recent Iraq war:
“Their error, in fact, is one common to powerful states, regardless of their constitutions, when they are unexpectedly thwarted by an opponent they expected would be weak and easily defeated. Such states are likely to view retreat as a defeat and as a blow to their prestige, and while unwelcome in itself, it is also an option that puts into question their strength and determination and with it their security. Support for ventures such as the Sicilian campaign generally remains strong until the prospect for victory disappears.”
Whether you believe retreat or escalate is the right answer, this seems to be what happened.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .